Believe it or not, sometimes I leave home without my camera. Of course, it's those exact times that I run across the most memorable meals of my life. This past weekend was no exception: a slew of pals and I hit up Gruppo Di Amici
, 1508 W. Jarvis Ave., one the best neighborhood restaurants in the city.
Lucky me, this adorable candle-lit place just so happens to be two blocks from my new home in East Rogers Park. I've been meaning to go there for months, but I've never found the perfect opportunity until a last minute invite from a girlfriend to hook up for drinks and dinner this past Friday night. I suggested Gruppo and the party was on.
Showing up before the dinner rush hits is always my MO, especially on a weekend. There's nothing worse than popping into a casual neighborhood joint around 8 p.m. for a nice meal with friends only to find a jam-packed house, a two-hour wait and a frenzied wait staff hating the very sight of your posse. The key is to show up around 6:30 p.m. at a place that's slightly off radar. You're guaranteed the best table, the waiter is delighted to see you, and you can get lit off a nice glass of wine before a soul's the wiser.
So just before 7 p.m., I scurried over to Gruppo and managed to secure my party a primo six-top near the front. This is the kind of establishment that will turn a slightly-on-the-fringe neighborhood completely around, and I credit that feat to its imported wood-burning fire pit in the rear kitchen and the cozy, wide-open bar up front. A unique and affordable wine list doesn't hurt either.
When my buds arrived, we ordered a few bottles of vino and went with a simple margarita pizza as an appetizer. Between fits of giggles with our gregarious waiter, Ray, about how he was indeed not a Latino, we tackled slices of perfectly cooked, crispy thin, basil-doused pizza. I would have been satisfied with just that pie, but oh no...we'd met to eat, and eat we would
We decided to order half the menu, starting with beautiful mussels in an earthy wine sauce with crunchy toasts sucking up all the juice. Next up was the fantastic octopus salad with tiny pieces of chopped celery, fresh parsley and giant squeezes of lemon. We moaned at the explosion of flavors in bite one, but that didn't stop us from gearing up our bellies for a couple of the house specials, a luscious lamb shank buried on top of maddeningly pristine parmesan mashed potatoes. Of course another prosciutto and mushroom pizza had to be unloaded onto the table for good measure.
If that wasn't enough to put us over the edge, we grabbed a few desserts to ensure a full-on bellyache. We were gonna skip sweets altogether until the double C's came out of Ray's mouth: cheesecake and cannoli. The homemade cannoli was sterling and the ricotta cheesecake with raspberry sauce topped with tiramisu gelato was gone in less than 30 seconds. On the way out the door, we all patted each other on the back and gave big hugs for what a wonderful experience we'd just been privy too. Life is good, or, as the Italians like to say with a big wink, la dulce vita. Damn straight it is...with or without my camera.
The Final Rave: Though I got no photos of the sublime food at my new favorite haunt, some things are better left to the imagination. But trust me, this food was a gift.
Keep It Going:
Eat it: Spacca Napoli
It's off the beaten path, but this Ravenswood pizzeria serves up the most touted crusts in the city. Try to make it in for a weekend lunch when the crowds are not as hectic.
Buy it: Canon Powershot
This is my new camera and I must say, no matter the atmosphere, it takes the most excellent pictures I've come across for a point and snap. Get one.
Drink it: La Cucina di Donatella
Still one of my faves of all time, this homey Italian restaurant on Howard Street is worth the trek for its multiple-mushroom pasta and a happy-go-lucky BYOB house rule.
Get crazy with it: Netflix.com
If you don't have a subscription to this online movie rental service, you should. For less than 20 bones a month, you could be coming out the ying-yang with Italian themed movies.